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Learning International Relations from Harold W. Rood

For a man best-known for a hard set of convictions, Professor Harold W. Rood was remarkably versatile in how he taught.  Profound insight, memorable single sentences, hilarious remarks, and personal attention to one’s intellectual interests were all among the rewards for his attentive students. 

For my part, I found there to be at least five consistent ways he reached us and left sound lessons.  The mining of history for understanding man and politics.  Studies of physical geography.  Attention to classic patterns of expansionism by rising powers.  Distrust—and even distaste—for theory as against facts and what a fact might explain.  And newspapers, especially foreign newspapers: after study with the omnivorous Dr. Rood, one never bought a paper in disinterest, and one never read a paper in the same old way.  Following are a few reflections about these five paths we walked as journeymen.

Education administrators often boast of how their school’s liberal education unveils the richness of human experience.  Not all students have that experience in college and graduate school, but it was genuinely difficult to find someone disappointed by Rood as a teacher.  He seemed to have encyclopedic knowledge of history books and history, with its empires, other forms of political rule, wars and weapons, and technical subjects such as civil infrastructure.  He could be surprisingly knowing about science, having worked in a laboratory and a think-tank.  I once idly asked if he listened to music, and if so, whose?  He slowly thought through a list of six or eight classical composers.  “Surprised?,” he asked.  “No.” It was not possible to be bored in Rood’s company, in part because he was usually well ahead of you.  He read and assigned good books, not text books.  Patrick J. Garrity’s thoughtful website “Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy” keeps a list of some of Rood’s favorite historians; most of us will spend our lives hoping to get through half of those works for a first time.  Where I heeded his recommendations—as with Sun Tzu’s Art of War, A. T. Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power Upon History, and Winston Churchill’s Gathering Storm—the books changed my life and later allowed me to teach from those very texts to some of a newer generation. 

Studies of geography were a defining part of the Rood regimen.  Everything the student learned, he or she used for years; everything in geography I could not learn has since held me back.  The first-year graduate student was sent off to the library to hunt through atlases and be confronted with the thousands of features that have helped define human civilization.  Here were bedrock realities, determinative facts.  And yet later came eye-openers such as the realization that completion of the Kiel Canal or the Panama Canal had altered geography, and with it human history.  A veteran of World War Two and of military intelligence work, Rood would have been completely at home with today’s martial technologies by which a unit commander has eagle-eye views of a conflict zone at the same moment that one of his soldiers manipulates a hand-driven ground intelligence “collector” quietly easing up to the wire of an enemy base.  Some of us love old maps; students now may be addicts of iPad; Rood had the kind of brain that could be at home with either or both.  He taught you the expanse of the plain, and then he taught you how man drove roads and rails across it in honorable conquest.   

In that vein, Dr. Rood’s special interest, within the rubrics of history and military history, was definitely the growth of empires.  He had intimate knowledge of the wars of German unification, and the two world wars, and Berlin’s parts in them.  The expansion of Russia, succeeded by the expansion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Warsaw Pact and its overseas alliances, absorbed him emotionally and intellectually.  This late 20th century drama of offense and Cold War defense was the subject of his profoundly-original book Kingdoms of the Blind: How the Great Democracies Have Resumed the Follies That So Nearly Cost Them Their Life.  As his students in the 1970s and 1980s we saw parallels, and analytical challenges, in studying the German wars while also studying Soviet power.  Today, a student of Rood would be working through the pages of his late-life analyses of Chinese geography and security questions (some of which Donovan Chau has published), while pondering the dangers to neighbors of China and to the United States. 

Dr. Rood devoted his time—and ours—to such real trajectories, to the rise and fall of great powers, and this left him little time for theoretical handlings of international relations.  He took no interest in how much time academics spend quoting other academics.  Many contemporary I.R. journals he found largely useless—so full of theory or statistical formulae, so empty of reality.  Elaborate theories of appeasement or aggression he disdained in favor of teaching students to watch how psychology and politics had been brought together and weaponized by despots. He never read International Security and did not need to.  Instead he watched Colonel Qaddafi, mediated on Cuban behaviors in Central America and Africa, and pondered the modern politburos and Red Armies that came after Lenin. 

A fifth approach involved one of Rood’s greatest loves: newspapers.  Few things intrigued him like a good foreign paper—and he read them in German and French, and a little Italian.  But a really bad domestic American newspaper could prove just as interesting.  In the famed “Rood Awakenings” over coffee in Claremont he parsed their lines, mocked their omissions, and diagnosed their flaws like a surgeon.  “Conventional wisdoms” were as important as truths; a Socratic had to start in the marketplace.  The professor was revered for his ability to leave a Monday evening dining hall discussion and place in one’s hand on Tuesday morning a group of varied and relevant clippings from the world presses—be they from yesterday or ten years ago.   We never knew where he kept all the paper.  He did.                 

Since the doctor rarely attended the American Political Science Association, I once began a presentation there with a detailed description of how much Rood could teach with a very few short sentences buried in newspapers.  The topic was one North Korean-trained terrorist cell infiltrated into Mexico in 1971 via Soviet bloc handlers and diplomats.  Every Claremont student of H. W. Rood remembers this curiosity; more importantly, we recall how the knowns and unknowns of it all provoked us to think—about aggressors, about terrorism, about surrogates, about the Californian border, about indirect approaches, about open source intelligence and international relations.  

Rood was not the only analyst of the 1970s or 1980s who knew about North Korean military advisers, intelligence officers, and other state agents posted in many parts of Asia and Africa.  But certainly he was the only such man we ever met who cared about such postings and could teach us why they mattered.  That one example from among hundreds, that tiny window into a Roodian education, that glint of secret North Korean state activity, have returned to mind in our time when North Korean engineers and technicians cooperate with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Pyongyang arranges the VX chemical murder of a high-level émigré in Malaysia. 

For us, there simply has never been another such mind.  How fortunate it is, then, that his many students have gone on to run a graduate school, or be Ambassadors, or become this country’s Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, or its Deputy National Security Advisor.